The Baroque was a style expressed in art, music, architecture and even literature from the Age of Discovery in the 16th century until the early 18th century. Most describe it as more dramatic, florid, embellished and a move away from the total religiosity of the Middle Ages and into a more secular and emotional, time frame. However, the spread of the Baroque in music, art and architecture was certainly tied to the spread of Catholicism and how art was used in the Church to help express emotion and tell the Biblical stories through painting or music for those not literate. Later in the era, the idea of music and art being reflective of religiosity became even more important with the split between Catholics and Protestants. Just like the philosophical materials that arose, the Baroque in music tending to use the past as a basis, but to integrate new ideas to propel society towards the future (Friedell, 2009).
There was clearly a gradual evolution between the music and art of the High Middle Ages, then to Gothic, and then to the Baroque. The basic principles of what the Baroque meant were, however, already established and then simply evolved (or matured) as a way to stretch the acceptable boundaries of art, music, dance, and architecture. For the average person, though, changes in society came about because of their station in life, rarely from Divine intervention. Many define this period as the beginnings of the Age of Humanism, not as a strict philosophy, but as a way of learning. For example, in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance learning focused on resolving contradictions between ideas and authors (X said this, Y said that; debate and find which holds truer). Instead, this period in history used a more logical, empiricist approach -- that is, taking known curriculum, apply the principles set forth in X's book or treatise; define what is observable, repeatable, and logical and come up with the truth. In doing so, the interpretation will provide more reliability and accuracy than without a robust examination of the text. (Unger, 2009).
Bach and Musicality in the Baroque - Musically, the Baroque Period usually describes the years 1600 to 1750, but as with all things cultural, was more of a period between Renaissance and Classical in which the musical emphasis was on florid technique, religious themes, ornamentation, and yet the adherence to rules. There are numerous cultural overtones to this; the religious was a celebration of the Church and a direct relation to the Renaissance and the new Baroque style in architecture; adherence to rules with ornamentation to the cultural view that one needed structure, but could find pleasure in the ornamentation of art, sculpture, and the way music imitated life. Of course, there were two dramatically different types of Baroque music; that which was composed and performed for the nobility (church, State, or courtly affairs) and the popular music of the day. In essence, the Baroque took the Renaissance and added more instrumentation, expected more from different types of instruments, new techniques, and a greater sense of adventure and homophony/polyphone yet with clear and linear melodies. Too, the Baroque brought the orchestra into popularity; prior ensembles were smaller and performed less complicated works. A musical example is the difference between a Palestrina Mass (Figure 1) and the opening of a similar section in Bach's Mass in BMinor (Figure 2). Note that the Renaissance Scoring was far less complicated, far less chromatic, and far less rhythmic. There is far more movement apparent, far more depth, and a general sense of orchestration that really never appears in the Renaissance. One can almost characterize the difference as music meant to be performed in the small Salon (Renaissance) versus music that would stand up to the large Baroque Church or concert hall (Buelow, ed., 2004).
Bach's Cantata BWV 4 - For the purposes of this paper, we will use the Cantata BWV 4 -- Christ lag in Todesbaden (Christ lay in the Bonds of Death) (J.S. Bach) (one of the most popular Easter cantatas). We can hear that Bach used an older tune with which to base his themes, but we can also hear the manner in which Bach added new harmonies, instrumentation, and chromaticism to express emotion differently that previous composers and musical periods. Our comparison will involve two performances, on by Karl Richter, the other by John Elliot Gardiner
. The first performance of this work was for Easter Sunday 1707 in Muhlhausen, with the revised second performance April 9, 1924 in Leipzig. The text if from Martin Luther and is scored for Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass and 4-part chorus as well as 4 trombones, 2 violins, 2 violas, and continuo (Cantata BWV 4, 2008).
Structurally, the basic tune is based on a 12th century tune Christ ist erstanden (Christ is Risen). The cantata begins with an instrumental sinfonia, then follows with seven stanzas that are choral variations. Each stanza uses a different set of vocalists to express the poetry, and in typical Baroque and Bach fashion are a series of interrelated themes and variations based on a single progression. For Bach, the voices explain the story while the instruments provide the emotional structure of the work; this becomes important when we look at the interpretations of two artists and their approach to the music- emphasis online, tonality, or emphasis on score and words. Too, we must also realize that the Orchestra and venue of the time was not typically a large concert hall and hundreds of musicians, but a more chamber music like atmosphere in which there was a "connection" between performers and audience. Because of the popularity of the work around the Easter Holiday, there are a number of recordings of the piece, beginning in 1946 (Gardiner, 2007).
Karl Richter -- Richter was a German conductor, choirmaster, organist and harpsichordist. Although he performed a large repertoire from the Baroque and Classical Eras, he is best known for his unique interpretations of J.S. Bach and Handel. Most critics found his performances to be extremely emotional, intense and festive, while avoiding the fluctuations in tempo that tended to be popular during this career (roughly post war to the 1970s). Unlike other conductors who emphasized the strings and voices, Richter was known for his attention to balancing the woodwinds and inner voices along with the strings (Worner, 1996).
John Eliot Gardiner- Is an English conductor who tended to specialize in the early music of Monteverdi and the Baroque, then branching out into Mozart. However, he remains most famous for his treatment of Baroque music using period instruments and attempting to emulate the style of the time. Much of his challenge was training modern artists in the style and interpretation of early Baroque music -- as his said, elan, commitment, and vocal color (Taylor, 2012).
Richter and the BWV 4 Cantata - Richter's interpretation of Bach, which technically correct and certainly vital and enjoyable as a musical piece does not necessary sound "Baroque." Whether it is the larger use of orchestral players, the echo and micfophone effects of the recording studio, or the pace, the work almost marches by with brisk tempo and strong and percussive instrumental technique. The music is comfortable to the modern ear because it sounds "modern." The emphasis is on the melodic line, whether that be the soloist or the echoing strings, and sometimes the brass; but the inner harmonies and texture are not as obvious. Certainly Richter is not rushed, but the pace is determined and varies little, except between movements. In other words, the overall effect of the work is that of a symphonic concert or larger scale vocal/instrumental work. The interpretation felt more romantic to me, the women soloists were emphasized, and the vibrator sounded more like a Brahms or Mahler work than Bach.
Gardiner and the BWV 4 Cantata -- This is an almost total opposite from the Richter recording. The pace is slower, but flowing and emphasizing inner melodies, especially the chromaticism that symbolizes death, damnation or other negative concepts in the poem. Gardiner has the orchestra and solicits on more interpretive, but far less dramatic set of volume and far greater attention to the inner voices (woodwinds, inner voices and particularly the counterpoint line. The tempo is slower, and varied; not drastic or extremely emotive, but more like the breathing of the smaller orchestra -- taking a deep breath and singing longer, more passionate phrases. Because the performance seems more intimate and uses original instrumentation, it is likely the one that is closer to that given in Bach's day. The harpsichord continuo was predominant, the woodwinds brighter and clearer, and the details more apparent between the melody and counterpoint.
Conclusion - Neither performance is correct or incorrect. They are simply different strokes of similar brushes that make a different painting. Bother are lively, enjoyable, and certainly both conductors emphasize the pathos and spiritual nature of the work. It is a matter…